Tag Archives: Community

10 Things We Should Teach Every Kid about Food

Food is essential to our survival. It impacts our health and wellbeing. It has the power to bring people together.

Food can be manipulated in many ways, from cooking to processing to using it as fuel. It provides tremendous opportunities to create value, and, as such, food is big business.

Much of the food we eat starts as a simple seed, or one that has been genetically manipulated to achieve some desired objective. From there, food can be growing in any number of ways, from conventional to organic and beyond, before it finds its way to our plates.

Food touches nearly every aspect of live, so it is essential that we understand it in the fullest context possible to ensure we, as consumers, make well-informed, everyday decisions. Unfortunately, for many of us our days of being educated and/or changing our ways are mostly behind us.

That is why we must focus on our children by finding creative ways to reintroduce food in its broadest sense into their everyday activities, starting with school, in order to close the knowledge gap between farm and plate.

Here are the 10 things I would integrate into our children’s educational curriculum to give them a fighting chance at making the joys of sustainable food central in their lives.

  1. The Food We Eat – Since most kids have little knowledge of where the food they eat comes from, we start with an understanding of what we eat as a society. Showing them a simple breakdown of consumer food expenditures, e.g., 25% on fast food, will give them a sense of our food priorities. As kids mature, discussions about how our food choices impact other thing would evolve into a new Sustainable Economics (SE) track in middle and high schools. Sustainable Economics, in my mind, is the replacement for the traditional Home Economics, which carries too much baggage. As you will read below, SE shows up in a number of places.
  2. Farming in America & Abroad – If you are active in discussions regarding sustainable food, you have repeatedly heard about the knowledge gap that has grown over the years between consumers and where their food comes from. Ideally, kids at a young age should take field trips to diverse, working farms to see first-hand what goes on day after day on a farm. From there the discussion should turn to the history of farming in America, current trends, how farms are financed, what they grow/raise and so on. Along the way, kids should also be introduced to the idea of farming as a career, something that I can never recall hearing during my childhood.
  3. Plant Biology – Since kids love getting dirty, this might be one of the more popular topics during the elementary school years – playing in the dirt (soil). In addition to studying soil and its different compositions, every kid should witness firsthand the magic contained within a simple seed. Watching seeds germinate and grow into plants, bear fruit, die and return to the soil will help them understand one of the more important circles of life. With more basic science under their belts, attention can be turned to heirloom, hybrid and genetically modified seeds to expand their understanding of ways man manipulates seeds and why, as well as fertilizers and pesticides and their impacts on the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat.
  4. Gardening – While understanding larger-scale farming operations is important, kids should also be taught the possibilities of human-scale gardening, something they can practice throughout their lives. This topic represents a cornerstone of my proposed Sustainable Economics curriculum since it gives kids the power to control where some of their food comes from, whether that food is used at school or taken home.
  5. Cooking – Another cornerstone of Sustainable Economics would be instruction on cooking, something that should be required just like physical education given the importance it plays in our health and wellbeing. Topics that can be superficially explored at the younger ages before more in-depth dives in middle and high schools might include techniques, tools, recipes, flavors, sensory experiences, chemistry, seasonal menus and more.
  6. Composting – Food waste is created throughout the food cycle, so teaching kids about the importance of composting is a final cornerstone of Sustainable Economics. Using Will Allen of Growing Power as an example, kids should be encouraged to embrace composting soil, dig their hands in it and get to know worms and other creatures working hard to break down our food waste. They should also learn the proper ways to use compost to help nourish the soil and help certain plants grow stronger and produce more tasty food.
  7. Industrial Food System – Moving into middle school, the emphasis on getting their hands dirty and familiarizing themselves with kitchens and cooking should be gradually replaced with expanding their understanding of food systems, i.e., how food is grown, processed and delivered to consumers. America’s industrialized food system could be nicely integrated into macro and micro economic studies, covering such topics as economies of scale, regional to global economies, industry consolidation, monopolies, process uniformity, etc. Kids should also be taught to contrast this dominate food system with historic systems, as well as (re)emerging regional food economies.
  8. Food Advertising – The food industry spends tens of billions of dollars every year promoting its food products. The level of sophistication used in food advertisements and marketing methodologies cannot be understated. Nor can its effectiveness at influencing choices people make about what, when and where they eat. Developing classroom exercises to help kids understand advertising techniques would go a long way toward ensuring that this highly targeted demographic learns to read between the lines.
  9. Government Programs – While it may seem a little dry on the surface, studying the changing role of our government in the food system could be turned into some pretty entertaining and impactful materials. Just look at some of the more popular food documentaries that have come out in the last couple of years, especially ones like King Corn. It may be difficult for kids to think about ways to influence government programs, but without a base of knowledge they won’t even bother trying.
  10. Food Entrepreneurship – When it comes to innovations in food, especially with regard to sustainable food, I have a strong bias toward teaching kids about the Pro Food framework I developed. Pro Food focuses primarily on regional food economies, so kids should also be exposed to entrepreneurs that are working to change the larger industrial food system mentioned above, since it will likely continue to be the primary source of food during their lifetimes. Like farming, there are many career opportunities in and around the food we eat, so it is important that we encourage young people to consider careers in sustainable food.

In the end, knowledge is power, and giving successive generations the power to demand fresh, environmentally sustainable and tasty food offers a glimmer of hope for the many advocates in the trenches today working to revolutionize our food systems.

Of course, like so many other things, getting sustainable food into school curriculums may be very difficult given many entrenched and powerful interests. The good news is that everything on this list can be adapted to our home lives. It will take a commitment of time, energy and probably a little money, but the results will be priceless.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday and The Kathleen Show’s Prevention not Prescription initiatives.

Local Vermont Libations for Eat Local Challenge

So the weekend is upon us and it’s time to loosen up a bit. Perhaps have a libation or two. But how to do that without falling outside the Eat Local pledge my family has made that goes through Sunday?

I could always add “alcohol” to my Eat Local Wild Card list (you get five), but since alcohol is the result of a process made up of multiple ingredients and I can’t trace them on the typical label, I went looking for Eat Local worthy beers, wines and distilled libations.

Thankfully, we live in Vermont where the ingenuity of our fellow citizens and the quality of what they put out never ceases to amaze me.

But can they pull of “local” libations?

Microbrews

There is a great article in the Summer 2009 edition of Local Banquet (must-read Vermont foodie magazine) titled Drink Local that explains what it would take to create a truly local microbrew in Vermont. Not easy.

Worse?

It appears to me after some digging (but not enough) that it hasn’t been accomplished yet.

If you want to get as close as possible to an Eat Local brew, it would seem that you should head over to the Bobcat Café & Brewery in Bristol (ask the bartender for their most local brew using home-grown hops) or pick up some Wolaver’s Ben Gleason’s White Ale (uses Gleason Grains’ organic raw wheat, rolled oats and 2-row malted barley). I don’t believe they are 100% local, but after throwing back a couple cool ones, you may not care quite so much.

Your other option, which I think I will consider for next year’s Eat Local Challenge, is to put the key out-of-region ingredients in your favorite Vermont microbrew on your “Wild Card” list.

Wineries

While Vermont has plenty of wines made from various fruits, I’m focusing on grape-based varieties, primarily made from Cayuga, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, LaCrescent, Marquette, Riesling, St. Croix and Traminette grapes (learn more here).

What we find are a handful or two of wineries using cold-hardy grapes to make some pretty tasty wines.

Our personal favorites come from Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge. My wife and I have visited the winery several times and have tried just about everything they’ve made. Having seen the grapes growing on their vines, and not knowing enough about the wine-making process, I can’t say their wine is 100 percent local, but I can tell you it’s worth getting a bottle for this weekend (or any other one for that matter).

Be sure to try Boyden Valley’s Vermont Ice and Vermont Ice Red dessert wines. If you visit the winery, be sure to ask them to describe how it’s made. Fascinating!

Hard Alcohol

Seven Days recently published a piece titled Beyond Bathtub Gin that tells the story of several up-and-coming Vermont distilleries. You should read the article, but if you’re looking for a short cut to “what to buy”, then here is a summary of what’s available.

Here’s to living, eating and drinking in Vermont!  And, please, for all of our sakes, please add options that I’ve missed to this post.

Have a great (and safe) Eat Local weekend.

Cheers!

Wrapping Our Heads around Eating Local

Day 2 of Eat Local Challenge Series

My family has been eating healthy food for as far back as I can remember. By healthy, I mean using fresh ingredients, with some preserved foods, mostly done so by food processors, to prepare home cooked meals.

Coming into this week’s Eat Local Challenge 2009, we figured it wouldn’t be a big stretch for us to add “local” to our routine, especially since we participate in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program at Wellspring Farm in Marshfield and have a large vegetable garden of our own.

What we are finding out is all the things we have been taking for granted, including many commonly used ingredients that are difficult, if not impossible to source from within 100 miles: sugar, flour, coffee, exotic spices, baking powder, baking soda, citrus fruits and juices, and so on.

Granted, we are using the Marco Polo Rule to allow the use of some of these food products, as well as five “wild card” foods, so we aren’t going cold turkey. But what if we, as a family or as a region, truly had to make such adjustments? How would we make that work? It’s hard to imagine given how accustom we have become to getting what we want when we want it.

Yesterday, my 11 year old daughter asked why more Vermont farmers and processors don’t find ways to create the products we import, e.g., grapes and raisins. Great question. The answer can be quite complex, and depends quite a bit on one’s perspective. For example, in a household with two working adults, time is a severely limiting factor, which is at least part of the reason why nearly half of the money American’s spend on food is spent eating out. Of that, nearly half is spent on fast food. In other words, even if Vermont farmers produced more of the ingredients needed, this group of consumers would not likely become regular customers.

On the other hand, if those farmers were able to sell such products to Vermont’s restaurants and institutions, e.g., UVM and Fletcher Allen, in significantly greater quantities, then those same consumers would indirectly be supporting those farmers with their “away from home” food expenditures, assuming they ate out at Vermont-owned restaurants versus national chains or fast food joints.

My point? Vermont, like any other region, has significant upside potential in supporting local farmers, dairies, ranchers and processors through consumer food expenditures for at home and away from home consumption. Taking a week out of our year to understand the subtleties and challenges of eating local has already opened our eyes to how we can better do our part.

Today’s Localvore Meals

  • Breakfast:  Scrambled eggs (Savage Gardens in North Hero), Vermont Maple Sausage (Vermont Smoke and Cure in South Barre), strawberries (Taste of the North, St. Lawrence Valley, Quebec), and Cold Hollow Cider Mill apple cider…to grogy this AM to remember to add peppers and chives from our garden and some wonderful Vermont-made cheese, but did get to sit down with entire family from breakfast on a school day, which was quite the treat
  • Lunch:  Vermont Soy Maple Ginger Tofu, Cabot Sharp Cheddar Cheese, homemade “local” muffins, hard boiled eggs (Savage Gardens), and lemon and regular cucumbers and carrots from our garden and Wellspring Farm (13-Year-Old Exception: U-32 cafeteria…no luck yet on getting her to take a lunch, although we will keep trying)
  • Dinner (Previous Night):  Savory Vegetables in Polenta Crust (recipe in From the Cook’s Garden by Ellen Ecker Ogden) – utilized great local ingredients, e.g., Butterworks Farm cornmeal, Rainville Family Farm organic sunflower oil and red bell peppers, onion, garlic, zucchini, basil and oregano from our garden; salad made from our garden and Wellspring Farm CSA produce; Monument Farm milk
  • Wild Cards: French Roast Coffee (Fresh Coffee Now in Burlington), baking powder (muffins)
  • Exceptions: (1) 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar in last night’s dinner; (2) raw cane sugar for coffee (were going to try out maple syrup, but ran out over weekend; will be buying syrup and maple sugar to test out…stay tuned)
  • Market Opportunities: following items might be ripe for Vermont food entrepreneurs – localvore breads (know Red Hen has some, but were sold out; couldn’t find any at Hunger Mt. Co-op in Montpelier), localvore dry pastas, raisins (my daughter will be your best customer), kid-tested peanut butter substitute
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Extending the Pro Food Pathway

Guest Blogger: Carrie Oliver is the CEO & Founder of The Oliver Ranch Company and founded The Artisan Beef Institute. Carrie is dedicated to helping people learn more about what’s on their plate and discovering that, like a fine wine, a lot goes into raising better cattle. She blogs at Discover the World of Artisan Beef and Twitters under @OliverRanch.

What better way to shake off a bad case of writer’s block than to meet the origin of your last meal face-to-face?  Earlier this summer a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob Smart, had written a post on his Every Kitchen Table blog about Pro Food, a burgeoning post-organic food movement, to which I’d been trying to respond for weeks.  Casting around for a distraction I turned to Twitter only to see a post from one pastured pork farmer, Heather Walters (@Rosemont_Farm) to another, Neal Foley (@PodChef):

Heather:   @Podchef &^%$!! that was a horrid link!

Who can resist clicking through a link like that? Much to my surprise, I was met with an image of three heads in a wheelbarrow, two pigs and one cattle, the latter with shaggy black hair and horns.  Horrid perhaps to Heather, but even more haunting to me since Neal had so graciously served me some mouth-watering rib-eye steaks for dinner a few weeks before.

Me:            @Podchef Hmm, re: horrid links & chicken carcasses… is that the beef I tasted?

Neal:         @OliverRanch Re, the heads in the barrow? Yes, that bottom one was Torino the steer & some of his piggie friends.

I had just met my meat. And my writer’s block was cured.

What does all this have to do with Rob’s original post, and its follow up, The Five Stones of Pro Food?  Rob outlined a set of principles on which food entrepreneurs could draw to create and support a new, pro-consumer, pro-farmer food system.  The five stones are decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility.

I relate to Rob’s five principles; I founded my own company in part on principles like these.  But while these are great business and moral guidelines, they didn’t quite capture my heart or frankly, my stomach. At the end of the day, to truly drive change, I believe that food still has to be about food.  My heartstrings need a tug and my stomach has to yearn for this food.  My stomach is all about “food appeal” (flavor, texture, and other functional benefits) and my heart is all about community (emotional and experiential benefits).

As a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob has graciously allowed me to use the story of Torino the Steer to cast a couple more stones.

Consumer Feedback Results in Better Food

In a more decentralized, transparent food system we have the chance to create and celebrate feedback loops between farmers and consumers, so that producers can incorporate consumer appeal into their decision criteria.  With Torino the Steer, we have the ideal, you might even argue utopian scenario: the person who most influenced the flavor and texture of that beef ate at the same table as I, and the other main influencer, the butcher, was just one phone call away.

I gave feedback to Neal, “This beef is just delicious!  It has a great chew, straightforward personality and medium impression.  It has a sweet almost delicate start and is a bit herbal. It’s an ideal steak for someone just embarking on a journey of artisan beef discovery (what I call Gateway Beef™).”  Neal’s response?  “Well that’s interesting, there are actually 11 herbs growing on that pasture; they were planted there in the 1950s and have thrived ever since.”  Now Neal has his first confirmation that the herbs are a good thing, not just a random thing.

Imagine if every farmer could access that kind of feedback.  OK, granted we cannot all sit down with our farmers and share a meal together, but greater transparency should result in the consumer knowing who made their food and give them the ability, one way or another, to tell the producer what they find most appealing.

The value? I can buy beef from Neal and know that I’ll enjoy it. I also discovered that I like beef that is finished on herby pastures.  We both can tell others what the beef tastes like so they have an idea if they might like it, too.  And Neal can consider what he might do next time – stay the course or work to make his beef even better.

Of course this extreme case isn’t easily scalable and the next most proximate – farmers markets and CSA programs — also serve a limited market.  However, I think entrepreneurs should be excited by the possibilities of using the Internet and new retail formats to take these types of experiences to larger market segments.  As long as we create and maintain transparency, even at scale we can create or enable a continuous, self-reinforcing feedback loop between farm and fork, thus improving the flavor, texture, and overall quality of the food we eat.

Advantage:  Pro Food

Community

Sitting down to share a meal with friends, family, and strangers has long been a communal activity.  Together with knowing more about what is on my plate, I think we need to start reversing the disturbing trend towards depersonalizing our cooking and eating experiences.  It wasn’t that long ago that a natural part of the dinner conversation was about where the butcher sourced the turkey and how we simply must tell Mr. Jones that the milk from his Jersey cows is the only milk we buy.

Shopping in today’s big box stores, including conventional supermarkets, warehouse stores and so on is, comparatively speaking, a complete disconnect.  From a food-community point of view, we’ve become detached.  An unseen stock person stacks pre-wrapped consumables on the shelf at midnight.  Not that this impacts the food itself in any way, but this is about as far from an intimate food experience as one can get.

By way of contrast, eating Torino the Steer with Neal and his family was a supremely communal act. Having seen first hand the way this family loves their land, livestock, and the other food they raise, I enjoyed that meal and came to appreciate my food at a deeper level than had I purchased the salad, berry pie or rib-eye steaks anonymously at a supermarket.

Indeed, ask anyone who’s been to a dinner on a farm or met a producer at an in-store demonstration, farmers market, or CSA pick up: there is something about knowing the source of one’s food that creates a certain sense of community, if not bonding, with the people in who make our food.

While knowing everyone who had a hand in bringing every food item to our plates is impractical, we can begin to restore a sense of community around food simply by letting our customers know where it came from in the first place.  Who knows where that first baby step might take us?

In a Pro Food system we’ll also probably see each other a lot more.  Some entrepreneurs might create small footprint, neighborhood stores in which we will recognize and befriend other patrons and store employees over time.  I still remember shopping with my mom at Robert’s Market in Oakland.  Half the time spent shopping seemed to be chatting it up with the butcher or friends she ran into in the aisles.

This is not a clarion call for a return to the past.  For better or worse, big box supermarkets beat out mom & pop stores for a reason, namely price.  To their credit, Wild Oats and Whole Foods reintroduced the concept of knowledgeable employees and presented food artistically, taking some of the commodity out along the way. How can today’s entrepreneurs challenge the current retail business model to extend the reach of such community based shopping experiences beyond high-income urban centers?

Other entrepreneurs, including myself, might create online or other communities outside of brick and mortar to achieve similar goals.  Social media tools offer the opportunity to build personal relationships and create rich discussions across political, geographical, professional, or personal boundaries.  A case in point:  a recent Twitter-based #AgChat discussion on antibiotic use in livestock included sustainable food advocates, farmers, ranchers, public relations managers, trade associations, veterinarians, journalists, food bloggers, butchers, and lawyers.  Just about the most inclusive community you could imagine, with a total contribution much greater than the sum of the parts.

Advantage:  Pro Food

The opportunity to rethink our food system is not by nature limited to entrepreneurs.  In fact, I would argue that our successes will fall short of expectations if we try to innovate without taking advantage of the two big constituents that I have talked about here, namely the consumer, and the food community in its broadest sense.  Decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility are important pillars, but I’ll bet our future will be brightest if we engage the consumer and encourage community at every juncture along our path.

Is Buying Food Locally More Important than Eating Local Food?

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.

This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season!  Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.

In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.

These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.

Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?

There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”

Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
  • Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.

With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.

How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?

As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.

For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.

Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.

Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.

And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.

Happy Harvest!

Planting the Seeds of Change

Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya

Seeds. They seem like such a small thing when compared to the big, complex problems the world is facing—climate change, poverty, war, famine, peak oil and an exploding population. They’re so small, in fact, that most will fit easily under your thumb.

But stop and think again. Without those tiny grains, what would be left on Earth?

Seeds are the bedrock of our food chain, the basic element of our sustenance. If they were to disappear tomorrow, we would follow them into oblivion with lightning speed. And, the most pressing issue people are often unaware of is that they are currently under grave and direct threats.

Sounds ominous, huh? Wondering why? Well, the answer is two-fold. First, we have witnessed a staggering loss of genetic diversity. In the past century, world agriculture has lost 75% of its genetic diversity to globalization, standardization and monoculture farming; 95% of the tomato varieties that existed in 1909 have become extinct; 91% of corn – gone. In addition, 95% of the cabbage varieties your great-great grandma grew have been consigned to oblivion. And though this may not seem on the surface to be a big deal, in reality it could mean the difference between full bellies and famine.

Genetic diversity in the food plants we grow is more than just the number of tomatoes listed in your favorite seed catalog. Diversity ensures that there are sufficient, genetically diverse and well-adapted varieties of any given plant to respond to any given situation. When a crisis arises, such as a new fungal disease or a severe drought, diverse genetics ensure that some varieties will naturally have genes that enable them to resist the threat and grow on, passing their genetic strengths on to the next generation. Without that diversity, with a significantly narrower gene pool to draw upon, crops and plants become susceptible to complete annihilation when these new threats arise. Such a disaster is not unprecedented.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s had such a devastating effect on Ireland’s population not only because they depended so heavily upon that one crop, but because they relied on only one variety. When the fungus hit, the one variety in wide cultivation was extremely susceptible and the mainstay of the Irish diet was destroyed within two seasons. Even as recently as the United States corn blight of the 1970’s, when 80% of American corn was of a similar genetic heritage and some 10 million acres of the crop were lost in a single season, we have seen the perils of lack of diversity.

The second threat to our seeds comes from industrial agriculture’s relative recent access to patents, as well as genetically modified organisms and seed company acquisitions, resulting in significant industry consolidation. Understanding this requires just a little micro-course in plant patent history (For a more complete history, check out the three-part series at Cooking Up A Story). In 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed, which allowed plant breeders, a relatively new profession, to patent a single, specific plant that they had bred themselves. Patents were limited to only that specific plant and any asexual propagations of said plant. Seeds, as the result of sexual reproduction, were specifically barred from patent. Fast-forward to 1970 and the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act. This legislation gave plant breeders the right to patent an entire variety of genetically similar plants, as well as their seeds and all subsequent generations. Fast-forward again, this time to 1980. The United States Supreme Court decision of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, a 5-4 split decision, gave individuals, and corporations acting as individuals, the right to a utility patent for laboratory engineered organisms, including seeds, under the 1952 Patent Act. Yes, that’s a bunch of gobblety-gook.

What it means is this: corporations have been given the power to own life. When you combine this with the consolidation of the global seed market by these same corporations, entities such as Monsanto and DuPont can not only own life, they can also control access and set the going price of those living things. In buying up every major seed supplier, they are systematically eliminating competing varieties and crowning their own patented seeds as the only choice in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. The right and ability to patent life extends to the genetic level, thanks to Diamond v. Chakrabarty. A corporation, like Monsanto for instance, can own a single gene and by extension, own any form of life containing said gene. This is a problem in the plant world because, let’s face it, plants are promiscuous. They pollinate far and wide with any willing partner. So, genetically modified corn containing Monsanto’s patented genetic sequence can cross-contaminate a nearby field of non-GM, non-corporate owned corn, and simply by the act of drifting pollen, transform every seed produced by that corn into Monsanto’s property.

So, this is a screwed up situation. But what can we do about it? We’re just the little people, with no real say in what happens on the giant, global corporate stage, right? Well, not really. We can take our seeds back. We can keep them out of the hands of Monsanto and DuPont. We can breed back our lost diversity in our own backyards, with our own hands, to serve our own communities and interests. Here’s how…

First, we must learn how to avoid plants and seeds that are already under patent, which can be difficult! If you are lucky, there will be a number next to the plant listing in the seed catalog, or a quick Google of the variety name will turn up a number. If the letters PVP are in front, you can search the Plant Variety Protection database. Now, this doesn’t always work, since many PVP registrations refer to a variety number, rather than a name and you may have to scroll through the entire “tomato” section (or whatever section is relevant) to double check that your variety is not listed or, if it is, that the patent has not yet expired. Another tactic is to check through the USDA Plant Inventory files, which list all varieties to come on the market in a given year going back to 1998. As a very general rule, all seeds listed as F1 hybrids are probably patented (or at least they were at one time) and any seeds introduced more than twenty-five years age can no longer be under patent.

These information sources are great, but they are not 100% reliable or complete. In order to really make sure that your money isn’t going into Monsanto’s pockets, heirlooms and open-pollinated plants that came into existence before 1970 are almost a sure bet. These seeds have been perfected over decades, centuries in some cases. They’ve survived through the years because farmers and gardeners have recognized their merits, superior taste and performance. They were, by and large, created on the front lines, in backyards and farmlands far, far from the clutches of any corporate entity.

But planting patent- and corporate-free seeds is only the first step. The next step is where we really begin to take back our seeds. We have to save them from season to season. We have to relearn what our grandparents knew and cut the corporate stranglehold by providing seeds to ourselves and our communities– tomatoes, peppers, kale, radishes, lettuce and more. When we begin to do this, magic will happen.

Seeds and plants are not static copies of their ancestors. Even the oldest heirlooms are dynamic, living beings constantly adapting and evolving. If we understand, even on just a very basic level, how to choose the best plants to save seed from—the ones with the best tasting fruit, the ones that get through the season with the least pest damage, the ones that grow the fastest or yield the most, then the seeds we save will grow into better and better plants every year. They will adapt to whatever region of the world we live in. After a couple generations and a few genetic mutations and cross-pollinations, our seeds will begin to transform. Even if I start with a Green Zebra tomato (developed by private citizen and plant breeder Tom Wagner) and another gardener across the country starts with the same tomato, within a matter of a few years saving seeds, we will have created two different, genetically divergent lines. Within a decade or so, the two lines may not even bear much resemblance to one another anymore, both having changed and adapted to local conditions. I’ve seen this phenomenon first-hand among my local gardening group. The seeds we select and save from season to season become the superstars of our gardens, performing better and better every year. This is how the great diversity in heirloom vegetables came into being in the first place and we can repeat it to create new ‘heirlooms’ that we can pass on to others. If we the people can do this, we will begin to rebuild the lost diversity in our agricultural heritage.

It will be a slow process. It will take decades, possibly more than one lifetime, to regain even a fraction of what we have lost. However, with the looming threats of climate change, new diseases, and corporate gate-keepers intent on restricting access to the most basic elements of human life, this project, this truly grassroots mission could not be more important. It’s time to take back what belongs to all of us. It’s time to take responsibility for preserving and rebuilding the agricultural wealth that genetic diversity assures, corporations be damned.

Who knows? When the next devastating plant disease comes rolling through the countryside, the variety that saves the entire crop for the future of humanity may be the very one we grew and saved in our own backyards.

Some seed sources dedicated to diversity and non-patented seeds to get you started:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange

J.L. Hudson, Seedsman

Freedom Seeds

Organic Heirlooms

Native Seeds of the Southwest

Amish Land Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Victory Seeds

What’s Ag Got To Do With It?

Sara Franklin is the Capacity Building Coordinator at WHY Hunger, a NYC-based non-profit that advocates for and works to build the capacity of the grassroots movement towards sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has been a farmer, freelance food and agriculture writer, and worked with various ag- and hunger-related non-profits. She can be reached at sara.b.franklin@gmail.com

President Obama’s plans to reform the healthcare system in U.S. have taken over the headlines in the past several weeks.  Doctors, economists, insurance executives, public health experts—all of them are being afforded the chance add their two cents on how to fix our broken healthcare system. The voices that are strikingly absent, though, are those of the agricultural community. What, you may ask, does agriculture have to do with overhauling the healthcare system? My answer– everything.

My awakening to the connection between agriculture, social justice, and health came during a semester abroad in South Africa. There, during a stint in a public hospital in a small city surrounded by rural territories, I watched as HIV-positive mothers waited for hours each month—some having traveled two days in packed vans—to receive a free box of nutrient-dense foods from the government. Those mothers were, without exception, Black and poor. Few of them had access to land as their families did before apartheid, and thus their ability to provide good food for themselves and their families had been systematically stripped from them. Today, with the AIDS epidemic spreading like wildfire across the country, the poor’s labor force—and thus earned income—has fallen sharply, making it difficult to afford food at market. As malnutrition and acute hunger have become more common among poor populations in South Africa, HIV and Tuberculosis spread faster and faster, as both diseases are easily passed to those with compromised immune systems from inadequate nutrition.

What does South Africa’s social and medical plight have anything do with with healthcare in America? We’re a first world country, after all. Indeed, and although our labor force may not be dwindling from HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis as South Africa’s is, we have our own epidemics to deal with, foremost among them obesity and all the diseases it brings with it such as Type II Diabetes and severe heart problems. America’s children are strung out on high fructose corn syrup—concealed in nearly every food in our supermarkets—and thus cannot concentrate in school or develop properly, making it difficult for them to succeed academically and, subsequently, in the job market. According to study after study (or firsthand experience from spending an hour in any public emergency room), the groups most affected by diet-related health problems are the poor and non-White.

Eva Salber, one of the pioneers of the community health movement once wrote, “diseases resulting from societal inequities can’t be cured by medical care alone—no matter its excellence.” One of the most blaring inequities in our society today lies beyond lack of access to medical treatment in the inaccessibility of the means by which to prevent ill-health in the first place: good food.

The effects of our broken food system affect all of us, even the small percentage of Americans who choose—and can afford—to eat a healthy, safe diet.  Treating chronic diseases is a major drain on our healthcare system an tax dollars, as is true in South Africa, and even equitable and accessible medical care for all will not provide a silver bullet fix to our population’s deteriorating health. If we are ever to enact lasting change on our health as a population, we all need healthy food to be accessible and affordable. Not the kind of healthy food that announces itself as such with a flashy label on a vacuum-packed wrapper, but the kind that comes from an ecologically and economically sound agricultural system, one that produces vegetables, fruits, grains, and animal products, not simply commodities to be processed into food products.We–individually and collectively– need real food to attain health.

America has watched, somewhat wide-eyed and dumbfounded, as a modern “back to the land” movement has emerged. Wealthy White college students, the ones have traditionally vied for summer internships in law, medicine, and finance—are increasingly swapping suits for dirty jeans and a spot on a farm crew for the summer. The number of farmers markets has exploded. And even among the most underserved communities in the country, the number of community-gardens, community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, and community kitchens are growing faster than summer zucchini. But we can’t allow the movement towards systematic change in our food system to stop there. Without policy in place to support a new generation of farmers who have economic incentives to grow food for consumption rather than producing commodity crops (i.e. soy beans, corn, and wheat) for the corporate processing industry, and until we can make procuring farmland in rural areas and greenspace in densely populated communities less cost prohibitive, we will never be able to produce the amount of healthy food we need to support a healthy population.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about the merits of publicly- versus privately-funded healthcare. We can ration medical services or not. The quality versus quantity debate as it relates to medical care can rage on for years. And we can calculate the potential cost of every permutation we come up with. But unless we begin to address root causes of ill health in this country—hunger, poverty, social injustice, and an agricultural system that feeds corporate greed rather than the citizens of this country—the costly burden on our health and thus our medical system will never diminish. President Obama and members of Congress, take a hint from the First Lady and her wildly popular garden and invite the farmers to the table. Our nation’s health depends on it.



Sara B. Franklin
Food Justice Advocate, Organic Grower, Writer
WHY Hunger, Capacity Building Coordinator

Breaking Ground: Musings from a Novice Farmer
http://www.fertilegroundusa.com/breaking-ground.html